It was the best of classes, it was the worst of classes.
This was not my beloved YA lit class but another, Reading in the Content Areas, a generic one that I enjoy teaching even though it’s not my own creation. I enjoy the diversity of the pre- and inservice teachers – diversity in experience, journeys, disciplines, and world views. Even a diversity of gender, unusual for an education course.
It is required; students are not here by choice.
Integrating technology is a risk with such a diverse group in a required course. They don’t expect it; may fear it; many believe they already are quite proficient. And they may be because many are Business & Marketing teachers and Career & Technical Education (Computer Applications teachers) who teach in labs and teach with technology though it’s usually basic computer apps and rarely any Web tools.
First heads-up that this is not your typical Reading in the Content Area course comes a week before the class begins in an email that gives an overview of the class and informs them that they’ll be using VoiceThread and Google Docs as well as Moodle the first week.
I fear that first week. I long ago learned to include a Q&A Forum in Moodle. I call it our “Collective Consciousness” Forum and actually require in the orientation tasks that everyone post a question or responds to a colleague’s question. You learn a lot about which students come with a degree of resiliency and optimism here.
One student, a Science/Botany teacher, wrote out of frustration: “I know plants. I don’t know Moodle.” After a scorching first journal entry and a couple of weeks of basically lurking and not responding to emails offering support, she called the distance ed office distraught and begged to be moved to a course that didn’t use Google Docs. I think she realized that all sections used Moodle but not Google Docs so she was choosing the lesser of the two evils. Then she dropped out when there was no option to move.
Meanwhile, a student who had left a successful career in statistics to raise a family and was taking math certification courses was struggling with the tech tools and questioning in every other email, and I would get five or more from her a day, why we were using technology in a reading course or why she might need it to teach math. I offered help and she gladly took it. Through her journal, phone calls, and meetings in Second Life (I was proud of her for learning that tool), she met every challenge and performed brilliantly. The course proved transformative for her and we were both thrilled.
I wrote to her journal that we were both better teachers because of the experience. I never knew I had that much patience and confess there were times I just wanted to throw in the towel and suggest she take the course again in a section without technology.
She wrote to me, “You set high expectations but practice ‘scaffolding’ and offer just the right amount of encouragement and inspiration. Again, thanks for believing in me.”
Lost one. Helped one teacher along her journey.
As I prepare to open up my courses at the university and online courses for professional development, I’m grappling with how to create the conditions for students to experience the rewards of creating a PLE. But I have to do it wisely. I don’t want to lose another.
So two inquiries in this writing: first, what defines the connectivist teacher? And, secondly, what strategies would a connectivist teacher employ to help pre and inservice teachers open up their imagination and willingness to learn, develop their PLEs, and begin to understand their need to become more connectivist for their own students.
I guess I first have to define connectivism as I’m beginning to grasp it.
Three characteristics stand out to me now.
- Connectivism is about connections . .
When I read that “knowing and learning are today defined by connections. Connectivism is the assertion that learning is primarily a network-forming process” (Siemens, 2006, p. 16), I realized that this metaphor of connection rather than construction has always rang truer to me. When I was writing my dissertation I was often high on connections and reached a state of flow. It was the most intellectually satisfying experience of my life and I loved all the reading and making connections among the authors that I felt I was growing to know on an intimate basis. This was no networking via technology but networking via engagement in an unfolding conversation with authors I admired. And it wasn’t two-way but one-way. But it very much seemed like networking to me.
- Connectivism is all about seeing and being open to possibilities — having the imagination and willingness to learn . . .
“All science is metaphor” (Timothy Leary) and so to understand the metaphor of networking, I went back to quantum physics. Garrett Lisi’s theory of everything uses the metaphor of the E8 coral “with particles at any location interacting in every possible way” to explain that “all possibilities are expanding and developing at once.” Reminds me of Kate Ray’s doc on the semantic web.
- Connectivism is creativity and creativity is connectivism . . .
I began this course with the goal of learning more about the creativity and connectivism so I was pleased to see that Siemens (2006) writes that “the characteristics of creativity are very much like connectivism” and cites Pink’s definition of creativity to “see new associations between existing ideas or concepts” and “. . . to bring new realities into being” (p. 16).
George also writes that definitions are relative.
In my context of a teacher wanting to create the conditions and model for my students so that they can have unlimited possibilities and in turn pass that gift along to their own students, connectivism means to creatively design a learning environment where students are able to make new associations and bring new realities into being – networking both in the social sense but also in the neural sense. They have to be open to learning with others as their network grows and open to recognizing other realities and perspectives – open enough so that connections can lead to feeling empathy for others. And they have to be able to open their minds to other ways of thinking that may cause disequilibrium and discomfort until they stretch and grow and achieve a new state of balance.
I unusually refer to Mary Catherine Bateson’s quote in each blog post that “we as a species think in metaphor and learn through story” and that compelling literature is a way that we can make connections and begin to recognize the realities of others and feel empathy. Empathy, Daniel Pink has recognized as one of the six elements of creativity that helps us relate to others, nurture relationships, and to learn to care for others. Empathy really is all about being able to see that there are multiple realities and that we can learn from them all. It may be the most important creative element of all if we can hope to solve the ponderous problems we face socially, politically, and environmentally.
Then it follows that if “learning is the equivalent to opening a door to a new way of perceiving and knowing” (Siemens, 2006, p. 22) that the door also opens to creating in new ways.
My role as a connectivist teacher is not to pass along or transmit the “knowledge” of those “experts” in the field but to create the conditions for my students to become open to exploring how they can best use literature to help children realize new ways to perceive, know, and create. I’ve written myself into believing that as a connectivist teacher that I can’t and shouldn’t even try to open doors for students. My job is to open windows on the world and through modeling share how exciting opening new doors can be. These doors include their own pedagogy of learning through literature with young adults and how they themselves can develop their own Personal Learning Networks.
I’ve been lurking in Alec Couros’s ECi 831 and Dave Cormier shared his syllabus for an open university course he’s taught. I plan to check those out next to add to a list of strategies I’ve begun. I’m also tremendously interested in professional development for teachers and will begin my first online open course this week. It will be interesting to see what strategies work when there are fees and grades involved and which work when either the stakes aren’t so high (certificate renewal credit) or participants really are motivated to learn for their own gratification.
I’ll close this installment with George’s call to action: “We must rely on network formation and development of learning ecologies. We must become different people with different habits” (Seimens, 2006, p. 23).
And my favorite prediction from Daniel Pink:
“The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind . . .”